THE SIGN OF IMMANUEL
“The Sign of Immanuel”
April 16, 2023
Rev. Colleen Hurley-Bates
Free Methodist Church of Santa Barbara
Our passage this week in Isaiah 7 brought to mind a parable Jesus told found in Luke 11. It is about persistence in prayer. Here is the main gist: You have a friend who has arrived at midnight and you have no food to give them. So you go to another friend’s home and knock on the door, telling them of your dilemma. This friend, whom you have ostensibly awakened says, “Don’t bother me. I am in bed, my whole household is in bed, and I can’t help you.” Jesus then says, “I tell you the truth, if you are persistent, your friend will get out of bed and give you what you need.” Then, Jesus tells us to ask because it will be given to us, search and we will find, knock and the door will be opened to us. If your child asks you for something good, would you give them something to harm them? No. How much more will your heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask. (notice it doesn’t say, God will give you what you want. It says you will receive THE SPIRIT.)
This parable is an interesting one. When we read it, it often troubles us how this is about never giving up on prayer, yet we think God is the friend in the house who doesn’t want to help us? It’s ironic in a passage where Jesus specifically says God is GOOD, that one of our main takeaways is how He doesn’t care enough about us to open the door. Maybe. . . we should read it this way: the friend is a broken person, yet EVEN they they will get up out of bed to give you what they have. How much more will the Lord see you coming, open the door with delight to nourish both you and the friend you want to help?
Now, let’s flip this parable around again and think about it in a different way. I want you to picture it as God who is banging on the door. Revelation says God knocks on the door of our hearts and urges us to open up who we are, to allow Jesus to come reside on our lives. Think about this story now with God on the outside and you on the inside. God is knocking and you say, “What????” Oh, Lord, it’s you. Sorry. I am tired. Can we talk tomorrow?” OR: “I am not really in a good place right now because the state of how things are in the world and I wouldn’t be good company.” OR: “I am so busy! Lord, you would not believe all the things I have to do!” OR: “I am afraid to answer because I don’t know what you want.”
Now, I am not trying to induce guilt here. I am merely pointing out that there are times when the God shows up and we are not ready or at a place where we can fully open the door to what He is asking. However, the reality is that this parable teaches us how to BE LIKE God, who is absolutely tenacious and diligent in His pursuit of all of humanity. Jesus is giving us an eternal truth that He himself is living out right in front of them. Why does God come to earth? To seek and save the lost. Why does He die on the cross? To gather all people in great love to God. Why does the Holy Spirit get poured out on the church? So we can live in the power of the Lord. The arc of God’s story is a single-minded persistence of God reaching out, teaching truth, drawing close, loving humanity, giving power and healing in an effort to bring His kingdom to our lives now. Think of how incredible this is! How miraculous and extraordinary! God has things to say. God wants your attention and ALL your devotion and He will not stop pursuing you until the day you die. Keep this in mind as we read the story from Isaiah 7. I will explain what is happening after we read the narrative. For now, you need to know that Ahaz is the King of Judah and God is seeking him. This is Isaiah 7:10-17
10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”
This is a historical portion of Isaiah, so let me give you an idea of what is happening here, as I am able to understand. King Ahaz came to rule at the age of 20 after his father, Jotham, a godly man died. Ahaz was the opposite of his father. He was influenced by the people around him and while he acknowledged God, he followed his own counsel. He worshipped many gods and imitated the pagan nations around him. He offered his own child as a human sacrifice. To bow down to Assyria, he copied their temple by reconstructing the one designed to worship the one true God, the God he was installed as king to represent.
In our passage today, we are in the middle of a sermon Isaiah is giving to King Ahaz. (remember that after Solomon, the God’s people split into two: Israel and Judah) What is happening is that the King of Aram and the King of Israel are set to attack Judah, whom Ahaz rules. They are doing that because they are afraid of Assyria, a HUGE power who wants to control the entire region. Judah is refusing to to be in a coalition with Aram and Israel, so their plan is to take Judah by force.
Earlier in the chapter, God tells Ahaz to be still and don’t worry about these two countries, calling them smoldering stumps. Their fire has gone out and they will not hurt you. One professor called them ‘hot but harmless.’ (1) God is not happy that Israel, who were formerly one with Judah, is attacking their family. Isaiah doesn’t mention how painful this is that God’s people are at odds. Ahaz is told to trust in God alone. God will save Judah, if Ahaz will do what he is told.
I am going to make observations about this passage to encourage us in how we understand our God who absolutely wants to show us the truth of who He is and how we are to live. This is a passage about trust and how our decisions affect not just us, but those we lead.
Our first observation: God offers invitations to see signs and wonders. Look at what it says in verse 10-11. Ahaz gets to choose a sign that shows God’s intention to help! It can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven. There is no limit to God’s power in the universe He created, so this is an unbelievable opportunity. Now, God is offering to show Ahaz a sign because it is important that the King of Judah trust Him. God is reaching out so they will know He will fight for them and save them.They just have to believe it and work with Him.
In a life of faith, signs are curious things. We often long for a sign from God. I remember when I was young, mature believers would talk about putting a fleece before God, which is basically asking for God to show up in the manner they wanted. Like Gideon, who asked that Lord to soak a piece of wool completely with dew overnight while making the ground all around it dry as proof that he would have victory. So, God does it and the wool has absorbed so much water, it needs to be wrung out. Then, just to be sure, Gideon asks for one more sign.
It is interesting that God is speaking TO Ahaz, which is more than a sign already! God is right there. Oh, that we would recognize God’s voice and be grateful for what the Lord offers to us, with humility and graciousness. How different our lives would be if we were content with what God gave and trust Him when we are in need. When we pray, we often ask for the Spirit’s presence and for guidance or clarity. Asking for a sign that those things ARE ACTUALLY happening is another layer of assurance, which is one reason scripture says we should do it. Yet, God is reaching out all the time. Through the Word, through beauty, through people, through dreams, through art, through our own thoughts and experiences. God always initiates first. Seeking God is never our own idea. The Spirit always prods us. We have freedom to choose a relationship with Jesus, but that is because Jesus came down first to live among us. God’s faithfulness, stability, joy, and constancy brings great comfort and moves us to action. Let’s be people who choose to see signs of God’s love all around us everyday. And when we need guidance, may we seek the Lord directly.
God wants us to trust Him and believe that no matter what, He will save us out of the dire circumstances we find ourselves in. God knows about the obstacles and the evil we don’t know how to overcome. Sometimes people ask for a sign with cynicism, doubting God even exists. However, we are taught to genuinely seek the Kingdom. In this case, to ask for a sign would show a connection Ahaz did not have, so God reaching out to build faith. God wants Ahaz to believe!
The second observation is how we respond to God’s overtures matters. So, Ahaz rejects the offer for a sign. Can you imagine? No thanks! I think we can understand this a little. Ahaz was his own brand of ‘WHATEVER” about Yahweh, but it can feel scary to be close to God. Once we know God’s will, we have to do something with it, like maybe change. We would need to listen and decide how we will respond. We say we want to know what God would have us do, yet some of us would do what Ahaz is doing: refuse the offer of God’s help. Staying ignorant of God’s will means not being obligated submit to it.
However, look at the passive aggressive way he does it. Ahaz declines an offer from the Almighty by using the Torah as an excuse. “I will not put the Lord to the test.” You understand what is happening here? The King is correcting God. The King whose own moral rectitude is no where to be found. I read this week how Ahaz ‘shrouds his unwillingness to trust by using a veil of piety.’ (2) Yeah, because there’s nothing but disobedience underneath it. Here is another good quote, from Dr. John Oswalt, “Piety is the appearance of religion while trust in God is the substance of religion.” (3) Ahaz has no substance so tries to cover it with a veneer of appearing as if he does. Because God Himself is inviting Ahaz to ask for a sign, saying no is disobedient. Quoting the law to the One who made it, in order to not comply with it, is wrong.
But, the bigger deal is how Ahaz is saying no to God, because he has already given his allegiance to the king of Assyria, whom he has asked to come and rescue him from the other two kings who want to attack him. Ahaz has sent silver and gold from God’s temple to Assyria as an offering. He has told that king, “I am your servant and your son. Come rescue me from those who are attacking me.” He is saying, “You are my Lord! (4) Can you imagine? This breaks my heart. The King of Judah bowing down to an evil, powerful man in order to be saved.
How could someone not think God’s plan was best? Surely Ahaz knew Yahweh was powerful, but maybe he wanted something different like being on the winning side NOW. Judah is a little fish and perhaps Ahaz didn’t want to stay that way. So, he chooses the big bully nation to attach his country to, thinking that will save him. A miscalculation.
We have to ask ourselves: Who are the big players in our lives we look to for validation, whom we go to when we are needy and think they will offer the best protection? Maybe the ones we are afraid of or admire or we hope to gain from in some way? We like to build alliances so we aren’t alone and because it is a way we learn to survive. Yet, in our desire to be close to the strong and powerful, we need to make sure we don’t sell our soul or get swallowed up completely or find ourselves in an unhealthy symbiotic relationship where we are only feeding off one another, eventually killing each other. This happens (you know exactly what I am talking about), in business, at church, or at work, in families, with friendship groups. . . wherever there are people. We can blame Assyria for being an evil overlord, but Ahaz chose to go along with them for his own gain. We always have to look to see where our gain becomes a compelling motivation to fill the void of our soul. Ahaz misses that this is actually not about politics or who wins the war, but faith in a God who is the only one who can save.
We also have to remember that this is a bigger deal because it is not just Ahaz. He is leading an entire country. Isaiah uses the term “House of David” when talking to him. The nation is also complicit, as we have seen, and there is not much worship of God going on. However, this is a key moment for Judah to be helped and it is missed because it’s leader is wrapped up in feeding his ego. And, as is often the case, the people will pay with terrible ramifications for generations to come. If you are a leader, BE CAREFUL. When you feel afraid or you want more power or something different because God is not working in the way you think he should or in a way that benefits you most, remember you are accountable to the Lord and it is the people you serve who will pay a great price for your actions. Leaders are meant to be moral because they can take down whole churches, communities, businesses, families, and countries.
Our last observation is: God does what God does. King Ahaz said no to a sign, and God’s response is surprising yet classic. He gives Ahaz tangible proof that He is the great I AM whose purposes will not be thwarted. In other words, God is going to give a sign anyway. Before the sign is spelled out, Isaiah does tell Ahaz how weary the Lord is from those who respond poorly to Him, as the King has just done. Have you ever had someone reject a really nice offer you made? Then you know a little of how it feels. God is offering hope and deliverance by putting forth the only opportunity for Ahaz and Judah to be saved, not just from the two little countries but from Assyria itself. But, Ahaz thinks he knows best. It is tiresome to the Lord when we seek inferior help elsewhere, when He is holding out His hand.
The sign will be a child born in the near future. Before this child is very old, but old enough to know the difference between good and evil, which would probably be 12, which is the age of accountability, the two nations who frighten the house of David will be gone. This child will be called Immanuel, which we know means “God with us” and it can also be a prayer, “God please be with us.” (5)
In this chapter, children play a key role as signs from God. In the immediate, this child is meant to show how God will keep the promise of help about Judah being destroyed by the two nations. Who will have this child? Perhaps Isaiah’s wife or the wife of a high level official. Whoever it is, Ahaz will know the child is a sign from God, as prophesied by Isaiah. The point is not the child, but what they represent, which is new life for a beleaguered people. The child will know the difference between good and evil, which is something his own sovereign does not. Yet, while Aram and Ephraim will be dealt with, Assyria, who is not impressed with Judah’s fawning over them and piddly gifts, will soon be their overlord. That is the consequence of Ahaz not listening to God.
We wonder how Ahaz heard these words? Does he wonder, “Why are we talking about children? Who is Immanuel? How can a child provide security against nations? Curds and honey are traditional food of the poor, so the child will be born to peasants. (6)
Yet, the ultimate Son, whom Matthew directed us to notice in Isaiah, is Jesus. It is Matthew who connects the dots for those who will come in the church age. (7) Ahaz is not looking beyond what is in front of him, which will soon be gone. Isaiah is giving a vision for few years hence, and then also a greater picture of the Messiah. This is a reminder: We have to look up. We have to look ahead. We have to ask God to show us what is eternal and how we can believe for this day and then for the one we cannot see and may not even be part of. Are we willing to follow a God who has never failed us, to secure a great future for those who come after us?
So, the sign of a child for Ahaz means the end of freedom for Judah and the sign of Mary’s child means the beginning of freedom for the world. It took 700 years, yet Jesus’ birth confirms the truths Isaiah and all the prophets spoke about. While we can see how Ahaz’s actions may have jeopardized the Messianic wish people had, God does what God does. In the fulness of time, hope was born, so that no matter what, we know we have a God who is always with us.
We are in the season where we celebrate the most important sign God has ever offered: the resurrection. Think about that. God dying on our behalf because we, like Ahaz, choose our own path. We needed a way back to God and the power to rise out of the choices we make that takes us away from truth and goodness and eternity. Let our faith increase because of what the Savior has done and let us be people who know with certainty we have a God who is tenacious and diligent that we would fully know what love is.
1. Working Preacher: Dr. Michal Chan, Luther Seminary 2016 https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common- lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent/commentary-on-isaiah-710-16-3
2. The Prophecy of Isaiah by J. Alec Motyer, IVP 1993. Page 83.
3. NIV Application Commentary on Isaiah by John N. Oswalt, Zondervan 2003. Page 142.
4. 2 Kings 16:7
5. Motyer, page 85. 6. Motyer, page 86.
7. Isaiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries) by Paul D. Wegner, IVP 2021, page 108.